The season's last game now having been played, it is time to cast my final BlogPoll ballot of the 2006 campaign. Because these are the rankings that will be set down to stand against history, I have been compiling data and comparing notes in detail in an effort to get it right . . . although, naturally, I invite your constructive criticisms of how I might have done my job better.
Aside from the rearrangement of the teams themselves, my postseason BlogPoll ballot differs from my regular season rankings in two important particulars. First of all, I have named every team to which I gave legitimate consideration for inclusion, so my list consists of 32 teams rather than only 25. Secondly, I have opted to present my ballot to you countdown-style, starting with No. 32 and working my way up to No. 1.
You may feel free to request long-distance dedications in the comments below.
Like Paul Newman just before the fight at the beginning of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," I see no need to tarry once we've established the ground rules, so here we go:
32. Navy (9-4)---I was high on the Midshipmen during the summer and the U.S.N.A. came this close to putting together a special season, dropping a pair of one-point decisions to Tulsa and Boston College. At the end of the day, though, the Mids' wins came against some highly suspect competition, as Navy beat just one team (East Carolina) that finished the season with a winning record (7-6) and four of the Midshipmen's eight Division I-A victories were over teams that went either 1-11 (Eastern Michigan, Stanford, and Temple) or 0-12 (Duke). Add to that the fact that Navy was not competitive with Rutgers or Notre Dame and it becomes clear that, although Navy's nine-win season earned the Mids a look, I could not in good conscience allow them to crack the top 25.
31. Houston (10-4)---The Cougars made a show of it, winning 10 games and sustaining their four losses by a combined 16 points. Unfortunately, Houston was harmed by its strength of schedule, insofar as the Cougs beat five bowl-eligible teams but defeated only two squads that finished the season with fewer than six losses. Houston's setbacks all came against teams that lost five or more games and the Cougars' best win (over Southern Miss in the Conference U.S.A. championship game) came against a team to which U.H. also lost (in the regular season). At the end of the day, I just can't bring myself to rank a team that lost to Louisiana-Lafayette.
Houston, you have a problem.
30. Maryland (9-4)---The Terrapins got my attention with a dominant Champs Sports Bowl win over Purdue, but, after that, Maryland's resume had little to offer. Clemson, which fell to 8-5 after the Tigers' Music City Bowl loss to Kentucky, was the only team the Terps defeated that finished with fewer than six losses, yet, despite Maryland's questionable strength of schedule, Ralph Friedgen's squad only managed to beat two Division I-A opponents by more than a touchdown. Against teams with nine or more wins, the Terrapins were 0-4. Nine wins and a bowl victory caught my eye, but, upon closer inspection, Maryland was more flash than substance.
29. South Florida (9-4)---The Bulls are a team on the rise and they should be poised to make some noise in the Big East next year, but U.S.F. came up a bit short in 2006. Only two of the Bulls' conquests came against teams that finished the year with winning records and West Virginia was the only team South Florida beat that completed the campaign with fewer than half a dozen setbacks. The Bulls' four losses were respectable, as they came against teams that went 3-0 in bowl games, three of them came on the road, and two of them were close contests. Nevertheless, since five of U.S.F.'s eight Division I-A victories were over teams that ended the year with four or fewer wins (and two of those were close contests), the Bulls' impressive road win in Morgantown failed to catapult them into the top 25.
28. Nebraska (9-5)---The Cornhuskers are the only five-loss team to have received consideration for inclusion on my postseason ballot. The Big Red defeated four teams that finished the season with winning records and a fifth (Kansas) that was bowl-eligible. Moreover, Nebraska's losses were forgivable, as the Cornhuskers' setbacks came against five teams that combined to go 50-16, including a 4-1 mark in bowl games. In the end, though, the 'Huskers had only one win of any quality, a narrow escape over Texas A&M in College Station, which wasn't enough to overcome the weight of five losses, only two of which were particularly close. Hence, the No. 19 team in my final regular season BlogPoll ballot plummeted from the year-end rankings.
27. Texas A&M (9-4)---Previously ranked 16th on my ballot, the Aggies were close to being really good . . . and close to being really bad. Eight of Texas A&M's 13 games this season were decided by margins of a touchdown or less, with five of those nailbiters being victories and three of them ending up as losses. Dennis Franchione's team beat five bowl-eligible teams, but two of those were 6-6 squads (Kansas and Louisiana-Lafayette) and the Aggies were 2-4 against opponents with eight or more wins. Particularly harmful to Texas A&M's cause was the team's inability to close the deal at home, as three of the Aggies' defeats were suffered at Kyle Field. When a Holiday Bowl skunking so bad that the other coach apologized during the postgame handshake is tacked onto the end, Texas A&M's litany of achievements amounts to little more than an eye-opening win in Austin . . . so much so that I almost dropped the Aggies behind the Cornhuskers.
The Aggies also lost ground in the poll because the presence of the 12th Man got them flagged for an illegal substitution penalty.
26. Hawaii (11-3)---Although the Warriors wound up on the outside looking in, narrowly losing the competition for the last spot in the top 25, June Jones's team came extremely close to crashing the party. Hawaii's three losses came by eight points at Alabama, by seven points at Boise State, and by three points against Oregon State. The Warriors emerged victorious against seven-win Arizona State, eight-win Nevada, eight-win Purdue, and nine-win San Jose State, giving Hawaii a 2-2 ledger against B.C.S. conference competition. In the end, though, the Warriors could claim only two wins over Division I-A teams with fewer than half a dozen losses, so the weakness of Hawaii's schedule deprived it of the final slot in the rankings.
25. Texas Christian (11-2)---Because I'm not at all certain that T.C.U. wouldn't have beaten my 24th-ranked team head-to-head, I believe the Mountain West deserves a better set of bowl tie-ins, but, until the Horned Frogs are given the opportunity to face tougher postseason competition, all I can go on is what Texas Christian achieved on the field. Both of the Frogs' losses were to teams that won bowl games, but both B.Y.U. and Utah beat T.C.U. convincingly. Only one of Texas Christian's 11 wins was a close call, but the Horned Frogs' schedule included Division I-AA U.C.-Davis and six teams that finished the season with four or fewer wins. In fact, although T.C.U. beat four bowl-eligible teams, the only one of the Frogs' victims to have finished the season with fewer than six setbacks was Texas Tech, which needed the biggest comeback in bowl history to make it to 8-5. I believe T.C.U. could have beaten a better class of competition, but that is purely guesswork and not reflective of what the Horned Frogs accomplished on the field, so my previous No. 25 team retained its earlier ranking.
24. Penn State (9-4)---I know I'm going to catch some heat for failing to rank the Nittany Lions ahead of a Tennessee team with an identical record that lost to Penn State head-to-head, but we must not forget that we are evaluating the teams on the basis of their season-long performances. Frankly, the 10-point victory over the Volunteers gave the Lions by far their best win of the season. P.S.U.'s only other conquest of a team that finished the season with a winning record was a 12-point road win over Purdue and Tennessee was the only team the Nittany Lions beat that completed the campaign with fewer than six setbacks. Penn State did not beat so much as a single team that won a bowl game and none of the Lions' road losses against good teams (Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Wisconsin) wound up being close.
23. Georgia (9-4)---At the end of the regular season, I had the Red and Black ranked 24th. The 'Dawgs improved their poll position by registering their third straight win over a ranked opponent in a come-from-behind victory in the Peach Bowl. Despite Georgia's midseason slump, the Bulldogs beat four teams that finished the season with a winning record, going 5-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less but also posting records of 4-3 against teams that attended bowl games and 2-2 against teams that played on New Year's Day or later. Also, that seven-point setback in Jacksonville ain't looking too bad right about now.
Like Paul Newman at the end of "The Color of Money," we're back. (Photograph from What's Bruin, Dawg?)
22. Oregon State (10-4)---The Beavers rose a notch after winning the Sun Bowl on a gutsy call that gave the squad from Corvallis its fifth close victory of the season. Oregon State beat six bowl-eligible teams over the course of the campaign, including narrow wins over Hawaii and Southern California, but the Beavers' achievements were diminished by losses to mediocre Washington State (6-6) and U.C.L.A. (7-6) squads. O.S.U.'s losses to Boise State and Cal were not by narrow margins and the Beavers beat just three teams that finished the season with fewer than six losses.
21. Tennessee (9-4)---The Volunteers, formerly ranked 15th on my ballot, lost ground after a lackluster effort in their loss to the Nittany Lions. While Tennessee was credited with quality losses against Florida and L.S.U., the Big Orange's failure to appear competitive in defeats against Arkansas and Penn State cost Phillip Fulmer's troops in the standings. The Vols still finished ahead of Oregon State, however, because Tennessee beat four teams that won bowl games and U.T.'s wins over Cal and Georgia came by convincing margins.
20. Arkansas (10-4)---Was it fair of me to drop the Hogs to the edge of the top 20 after a narrow postseason setback? After all, Houston Nutt's crew lost only to teams that played on January 1 or later, each of which won at least 11 games. However, the three teams the Razorbacks beat that ended up with winning records (Auburn, South Carolina, and Tennessee) also happened to be the only teams Arkansas beat that lost fewer than seven games in 2006. Because of that, the Hogs slid from No. 11 to No. 20 like a greased pig.
Dawg Sports bravely dropped the Razorbacks to No. 20, despite the very real risk that this lunatic will hunt me down and kill me for dissing his team.
19. Virginia Tech (10-3)---It is rather odd, I know, for a team to move up from No. 22 to No. 19 following a loss in which a 21-3 halftime lead was squandered, but the postseason was kind to the Hokies' 2006 record of achievement in spite of their Peach Bowl setback. Frank Beamer's team was 4-1 against teams playing on New Year's Eve or later and V.P.I. beat six bowl-eligible teams. All three of the Hokies' losses came at the hands of teams that won nine or more games.
18. Wake Forest (11-3)---I had the Demon Deacons ranked 18th in my final regular-season rankings and I did not drop them, in part, because they performed better against Louisville than I anticipated. Nevertheless, I couldn't rank Wake Forest any higher than that because the champion of the weakest B.C.S. conference did little to earn a higher ranking than this. Five of the Deacs' 10 Division I-A wins were by a touchdown or less, whereas none of their losses were close, despite the fact that none of those three setbacks came on the opponent's home field. Wake beat Boston College narrowly in Winston-Salem, which certainly counts for something, but the Eagles were one of only three victims of the Demon Deacons to have tallied fewer than half a dozen losses on the year.
17. Brigham Young (11-2)---A Las Vegas Bowl thrashing of Oregon allowed the Cougars to edge upwards from the No. 21 spot on the strength of a season that included six wins over bowl-eligible teams, including a convincing victory over T.C.U. Both of B.Y.U.'s losses were close games on the road against bowl-eligible B.C.S. conference opponents, but the Cougs were prevented from clawing their way into the top 15 because their schedule included five teams that finished with four or fewer wins.
Unfortunately for B.Y.U., the Cougars can't celebrate their No. 17 finish with champagne and cigars, but they can enjoy some tasty organic popcorn! (Photograph from these French guys.)
16. Notre Dame (10-3)---The Fighting Irish get additional credit for their dismantling of Penn State, which looks a good deal more impressive now than it did on New Year's Eve. Unfortunately for Charlie Weis and company, the impressive parts of the Golden Domers' resume begin and end with their win in South Bend over the Nittany Lions. Notre Dame registered only three wins over teams that finished the season with fewer than six losses and the Fighting Irish's victims went a combined 1-4 in bowl games. All three of Notre Dame's tussles with 11-2 powerhouses (L.S.U., Michigan, and Southern California) were blowouts. The Golden Domers' latest thumping got them out of the top 10 in a great big hurry.
15. Texas (10-3)---I'm not happy about dropping the Longhorns one spot in the rankings after their thrilling victory over Iowa, but other teams edged them out, pushing Texas to the periphery of the top 15. At the end of the regular season, the 'Horns were looking good; their losses all came against bowl-bound teams and their victories included six bowl-eligible teams, including two that would finish the year with nine or more wins themselves. However, a bit of the shine was stolen from both sides of Texas's won-lost ledger during the postseason, as teams the Longhorns beat went 2-4 in bowl games and teams that beat Texas fared even worse, going 0-3 in bowls and losing by a combined margin of 123-34.
14. California (10-3)---The Golden Bears were my No. 20 team, but they vaulted past several other squads to claim the No. 14 spot previously belonging to Texas after hammering the team that upset the 'Horns in their regular season finale. Cal lost three road games, in a close contest against a bowl-eligible Arizona squad and by wider margins against Southern California and Tennessee. However, the Bears' nine Division I-A victories included wins over seven bowl-eligible teams, among them Oregon State and Texas A&M.
Since I just mentioned California, and since Radiator Springs is on the way to California, and since I've been making Paul Newman references right and left, I figured I might as well work Doc Hudson into the proceedings, as well. (Photograph from Spiegel.)
13. Boston College (10-3)---I wrote off the Eagles much earlier than I should have, which is why they made an impressive leap from being unranked to being in the top 15. Boston College's losses all came on the road and were by a combined 12 points, yet still the Eagles managed a 5-3 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, including their victory over Navy. Seven of B.C.'s nine Division I-A wins came against teams with winning records and five of those victims won nine or more games.
12. Oklahoma (11-3)---While it was inevitable that the Big 12 champions would fall from the top five following their overtime loss in the Fiesta Bowl, I regretted that the Sooners dropped out of the top 10 altogether. After all, Oklahoma's losses all came in games played outside of Norman, two of them were as close as close can be, and the only O.U. setback suffered at the hands of a team with a single-digit win total came on what might charitably be characterized as a controversial call. Nevertheless, the Sooners' wins were over competition comparable to that bested by my 10th- and 11th-ranked teams and Bob Stoops's troops had the disadvantage of an extra loss. Oklahoma beat six teams that finished the season with winning records, but that achievement was diminished somewhat by the fact that those half-dozen victims went a combined 2-4 in bowl games.
11. Rutgers (11-2)---The State University of New Jersey was the feel-good story of the year and Greg Schiano's squad fell just short of a spot in the top 10. Like the Sooners, the Scarlet Knights won 11 games, defeated six bowl-eligible teams, and got the better of four opponents who finished the season with fewer than six losses. Still, Rutgers had several advantages over Oklahoma. For one thing, the Knights had just two losses, each of which came on the road against a team that won a January bowl game. For another, there is at least a credible case to be made for the proposition that the Big East (which posted a 5-0 record in bowl games) was a better conference this year than the Big 12 (which went 0-14 against ranked out-of-conference opponents). For a third, the State University of New Jersey beat four teams that finished with nine or more victories and posted a quality win (over Louisville) better than any recorded by the Sooners. Consequently, the Scarlet Knights moved up from No. 13 and passed Oklahoma, a team that lost to Texas, which lost to Kansas State, which lost to Rutgers.
As a consummate professional actress, Rutgers alumna Kristin Davis is able to conceal her joy over her alma mater's outstanding season. (Photograph from Ask Men.)
That brings us to the top 10 teams in the land. Who made the grade? All right, it's probably pretty easy to figure out that Auburn, Boise State, Florida, Louisiana State, Louisville, Michigan, Ohio State, Southern California, West Virginia, and Wisconsin all are in my top 10, but in what order? Who's No. 1?
Stay tuned for the Dawg Sports top 10.
To be continued. . . .